A few years before Nina Simone decided to become a singer, she was just another black girl from North Carolina living in Philadelphia with her musical talent and big dreams. Having trained throughout her youth to become a classical pianist, even putting in time at the famed Julliard in New York City, she hoped to gain admission to the Curtis Institute of Music, located in her newfound hometown.
Simone—who was still using her birth name, Eunice Waymon, at the time—was so sure she would impress Curtis’ judges with what she had learned behind the keyboards from age 7, she’d moved her entire family to the City of Brotherly Love. However, the school wasn’t as awed by her interpretations of Mozart and Beethoven as past teachers. Believing it was based on racism, the rejection would leave her “hurt and bitter for many years,” she told Q. magazine’s Lloyd Bradley in 1991. Yet, had that graceful girl been allowed to enter Curtis’ hallowed halls, popular music would’ve been denied the beauty and brilliance that defines her musical legacy.
In a sense, Nina Simone, who would’ve turned 80 years old on Feb. 21, was born on the streets of Philadelphia when Eunice Waymon thought she would sully her family name by playing pop songs in local bars and supper clubs. A few years later, when Philly-based radio jock Sid Marks jammed her stunning cover of George Gershwin’s “I Love You, Porgy” on his program The Mark of Jazz—sometimes three or four times in a row—the word began to spread up and down the East Coast about Simone.
With a haunting voice that had the power to simultaneously intimidate and seduce, Simone became a powerful voice in 20th-century music and civil rights politics. She marched with Martin Luther King, wrote songs like “Mississippi Goddam” and, in not-so-ladylike fashion, began to scare folks with her brutal honesty. In truth, Simone developed a notorious rep for being frightening in both life and song. Even my personal favorite, “Wild is the Wind,” which sounds like a cool torch song when sung by its originator, Johnny Mathis, became an aching anthem of romanticism and regret, slavery and liberation in Simone’s hands. When my jazz-loving Uncle Carl played “Wild is the Wind” for me when I was 17, she scared me to death. At the same time, I fell in love with the fear.
“It’s scary, that’s the truth,” Grammy Award- winning bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding told me in 2011. Inspired by Simone, she covered “Wild is the Wind” on her acclaimed third LP Chamber Music Society. “Music is just an outcropping of whatever we’re really feeling. From people that I’ve talked to who were close to her, Nina Simone was supposedly terribly insecure, lonely and afraid that people wouldn’t like what she did. Somehow, that kind of manifested itself into this hard, strong, don’t-mess-with-me, I-know-what-I’m-about (thing). But, it was really sort of the opposite. ‘Wild is the Wind’ somehow captures the quality of her nature.”
Indeed, Simone’s wildness drove her as an artist, a force that called out wrong-doers and church bombers and made her both a star and a controversial figure. It was that wildness that often made her mean and resentful, snapping at family, friends and audience members. And that wildness propelled Simone from the barrooms of Philly to the queen of “Bach, boogie and bebop,” as writer Herb Boyd once elegantly wrote.
Ten years ago, the woman who had once been so spirited in life and in song died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 70. But her wildness continues to inspire.
While there has been much talk about Simone lately—especially with a controversial film starring a skin-darkened, prosthetics-wearing Zoe Saldana in production—on her birthday, I plan on lighting a couple of scented candles and playing “Wild is the Wind” over and over and over.
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